As internet becomes more essential, complaints of poor service increaseService providers blame consumers and infrastructure issues like poles for cables but advocacy groups say the onus lies on the sellers not the buyers.
With tens of thousands of people watching the quarter-finals of the Euro 2020 football championship on the internet Friday night, total internet traffic through Nepal Internet Exchange reached 50 gigabytes per second (gbps), slowing the speed of internet connection for Nepali consumers.
This figure at any specific moment generally stands at 10 to 15 gbps, according to Indiver Badal, a board member of Nepal Internet Exchange.
Roughly 2,000 gbps of internet content is consumed every day in Nepal, much of it on watching videos online. Of the 2,000 gbps, 80 percent traffic comes from servers that are in Nepal that provide international content like Google and Netflix, among others.
“The remaining 20 percent is for international traffic,” Badal said.
Internet Exchange Nepal is Nepal’s first Internet Exchange point where most local traffic between Nepali internet service providers passes through.
Internet penetration stands at 90 percent of the population and that of fixed broadband internet service providers stands at 25 percent of the population, a significant increase from 2018, when total internet penetration was 56 percent of the population and fixed broadband users stood at 12 percent of the population, according to the Nepal Telecommunications Authority.
But with the growth of the internet, complaints regarding its speed and interruption in supply is all too common a phenomenon. More so, as many people are working from home and classes are attended online since the pandemic began early last year.
Swastika Acharya, who works as a customer relations officer at an advertising company, has been facing the problems caused by slow internet while working from home. As uploading or downloading files is part of her job, a slow internet connection is quite frustrating, she says.
“As I have to meet deadlines, I have no option than to buy expensive mobile data to do my work. I am not getting the internet speed for which I have paid,” Acharya told the Post. “When I complain with the internet service provider, customer response is so weak that they never address the problem.”
Internet service providers, however, point fingers elsewhere rather than at the quality of their service.
“I do not think there is any problem from the side of service providers for a slow internet speed,” said Sudhir Parajuli, president of Internet Service Providers’ Association Nepal.
According to him, 60 percent of the issues regarding speed of connection originates with the customer. These include low bandwidth that the customers have purchased, too many people using the internet at the same time from one connection and the distance between the router and the device. Router issues like the quality of the router used make up another 20 percent of the complaints.
“Consumers need to be aware of the terms and conditions when they buy the service,” said Parajuli. “If they buy the service by compromising with the service provider, there can be problems.”
According to Parajuli, customers, before buying any internet service package, should know their contention ratio. For instance, if anyone has taken 30 mbps internet service and agreed contention ratio on 1 is to 8 then one internet connection is being used by eight households in peak time and this slows the speed.
“It is because several clients are being served with one connection that the charge for internet connection is low,” he said.
There is the option of buying a dedicated line which is not shared with others and this is much faster, according to service providers.
Consumer rights activists, however, say that blaming consumers for failing to provide quality service is wrong.
“What has been done by the authority and the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology in terms of spreading awareness?” said Jyoti Baniya, president of the Forum for Protection of Consumer Rights. “They have neither conducted any market research on service packages nor penalised any service providers.”
The Internet Service Provider Bylaws 2020 clearly state that an internet service provider should solve problems within 24 hours of the consumer’s complaint and if it does not, the service provider should not charge for the period that service has been interrupted.
Other stakeholders also say the blame lies not with the consumer but with the service provider.
“Many consumers are experiencing they are not getting the internet speed they have paid for, especially in the past few months,” said Santosh Sigdel, founder chairman of Digital Rights Nepal, an advocacy group to strengthen civic space and digital rights. “Poor quality of internet service is a problem with almost all the internet service providers.”
An internet company needs to inform three days in advance if its service is going to be interrupted, as per the bylaws.
If a consumer complaint is in writing regarding service to the service provider, the company should investigate the issue and the decision of the investigation committee will be accepted by the consumer and the company but if the consumer is not satisfied with the decision, then they can complain to the Nepal Telecommunications Authority.
Authorities, however, say that the scale of the problem has been magnified.
“Two percent error from telecommunication services is internationally accepted,” said Purushottam Khanal, chairman of the Nepal Telecommunications Authority. “Therefore it is not justifiable to interpret from the number of complaints that service is generally terrible.”
He said that even if 2 percent complain, then in absolute terms, the number of complaints is high.
But the compliant mechanism needs to be improved as the existing system is not transparent and it is not easy to complain, according to Sigdel.
“Unless the complaints are addressed on time through a consumer court-like mechanism and internet service providers made responsible for them, improvement in service cannot be expected,” he said. “The legal process needs to be efficient so that the consumer who feels cheated can take recourse to the law for justice.”
At present, consumers verbally complain to the service providers but they do not know what to do in case their complaints are not addressed like in the case of Acharya, the advertising agency employee.
In the afternoon of June 23, Worldlink internet users faced disruption in internet services for about one hour. People called the office but the calls did not get through. Panicking students attending online classes as well as others who depend on the smooth internet connection for their work gathered at Worldlink offices to enquire about what was going on. The whole system was down but soon restored.
The authority has directed internet service providers to keep toll free numbers, but the toll free numbers are not publicised sufficiently and some even do not keep the toll free number which shows the service providers are not following the directives, said Sigdel.
But the Nepal Telecommunication Authority says that it is addressing the complaints that come to it.
“We have been regulating and doing regular market inspection but there are multiple factors like external infrastructure that does not support in providing quality service,” said Khanal of the authority.
External infrastructure includes the utility poles on which the internet cables hang.
According to Parajuli of the Internet Service Providers’ Association Nepal, 20 percent of the complaints are due to the existing infrastructure like electricity poles, which are owned by the Nepal Electricity Authority, or the underground optical fibre cables.
“The unmanaged jumble of internet cables on electricity poles is a major issue,” said Laxman Yadav, director of corporate affairs at WorldLink Communications, one of the biggest internet service providers in the country. “We have been lobbying with the government for systematic infrastructure by providing a pole for only two service providers to manage congested wires on electricity poles.”
According to Yadav, in the monsoon, it takes time for maintenance if there is a problem with the pole like it falling down or catching fire.
There are 7 to 10 internet service providers’ wires on one electricity pole in Kathmandu Valley and the government has been charging Rs9,000 per km of cable annually for using electricity poles which, according to Parajuli, is not only impractical but wrong in principle.
“Charges should have been fixed on the basis of the number of poles used but we are charged on the basis of how many kilometres the internet cables are,” Parajuli said.
Besides when roads are maintained or sewage pipes are laid, electricity poles are shifted.
“We are not even informed beforehand when electricity poles are shifted,” said Parajuli. “There are problems even with the installed optical fibre cables on the East-West Highway when people operate bulldozers without prior information.”
The association has been demanding that the government licence a separate infrastructure company formed by internet service providers to look after the distribution service and problems related to cables, he added.
Other stakeholders also agree that despite the growing penetration of the internet, the infrastructure available has not been able to keep pace.
“The lack of internet infrastructure is one of the major problems,” said Badal of Nepal Internet Exchange, who has 25 years of experience working in the information and technology sector.
“Internet penetration is increasing rapidly but the capacity of our infrastructure remains old. It costs billions to build infrastructure and unless the government spends on it, the problem of quality internet will worsen further in future as demand will continue to increase.”
But as far as the consumer is concerned, legal provisions regarding access and quality of service are needed, stakeholders say.
“The quality of service needs to be included in the law. The legal process needs to be efficient so that the consumer who feels cheated can follow a legal process,” said Sigdel of Digital Rights Nepal. “Internet service providers would have been more responsible for quality of service if the Nepal Telecommunication Authority took action. It should be more visible so that consumer complaints are addressed.”